Of the best-selling acts in the current wave of alternative R&B, Jhené Aiko is also the one with the most traditional showbiz background. Promoted in the early ’00s as the teen cousin to boy band B2K’s Lil’ Fizz, despite not actually being his relation, the Los Angeles singer recorded a never-released Sony album. She partnered with Miguel associates Fisticuffs on the 2011 mixtape Sailing Soul(s), which lead to appearances on albums by Drake, Childish Gambino, J. Cole and others. With a moody vocal tone guaranteed not to upstage even the mellowest of MCs, she’s poised to become today’s Ashanti, the soft-voiced singer of hooks on more than a dozen early-millennium hip-hop and R&B smashes.
Her sole solo hit “The Worst,” from her 2013 EP Sail Out, may be a ballad, but it’s loaded with bitter barbs: “Please don’t take this personal/ But you ain’t shit.” Though her first official album, Souled Out, has similarly plainspoken lyrics, it never gets that feisty nor is it as memorable. Instead, it puts a glossy sheen on the alt-R&B of Frank Ocean and Miguel without the tunes or personality that sets them apart from mainstream peers like Chris Brown and Jason Derulo. It may boast the former’s hip surfaces, but not their lasting substance.
Souled Out features one synth-heavy slow jam after the other, all thick with mood but light on melody. Guitars, strings and horns appear on funereal cuts like “To Love & Die” and “Brave,” but like Aiko’s thin, breathy delivery, they’re shot through so much studio processing that they’re texturally little different than the electronics. Producer/songwriters Fisticuffs, Dot da Genius, Key Wayne and No I.D. all follow such similarly formulas — somnambulant tempos, atmospheric keys and gently psychedelic soul-rock swirls — that they might as well have been produced by the same team.
The movie-referencing titles of “Eternal Sunshine,” “Spotless Mind” and “Lyin King” distract from choruses of forgettable phrases chopped up and repeated to resemble conventional refrains: “I will be wading/ I will be wading/ Wading for you/ I have been wading/ I will be wading ’til I turn blue/ ‘Til I turn blue,” an Auto-Tuned and tweaked-out Aiko drones throughout “Wading.” And while she isn’t the first marginal talent thoroughly overshadowed by major-label production values, her latest effort stands out as a textbook example of how not to make modern R&B. There’s essentially no singer, no songs and no soul here. Souled Out can’t help but live up to its title.